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Beware the Pigeons

By Christopher Kemp · August 10th, 2000 · Science & Technology
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Pigeons. They're pretty stupid, right? People rarely describe others as having the cunning of a pigeon. And you've probably never seen a movie in which a ruthless double agent called The Pigeon slips unseen across borders like a gust of wind, always one step ahead of the Russians.

There's a good reason for that. They're stupid.

But a recent study has uncovered some interesting similarities between pigeon and human psychology. And the results indicate pigeons might not be so stupid after all.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky in Lexington first trained pigeons to tap a button to dispense their food. On some occasions, the pigeons had to tap the button just once and it would turn red and dispense food. And on other occasions, the button had to be tapped 20 times, after which it would instead turn green and reward the pigeon with food. The pigeons were then given the choice of tapping either a green or red button in order to get their food.

The researchers didn't expect the pigeons to care too much which button they tapped, because they knew the pigeons were stupid.

Optimists might have expected the pigeons to tap the red button after learning to associate the color red with a minimal amount of work. But they were surprised to find the pigeons were twice as likely to tap the green than the red button regardless of the fact that the green button was associated with a greater workload.

The willingness to perform more work for the same reward is a character trait pigeons share with us humans. For pigeons, as for humans, the greater the struggle the greater the value placed on the reward.

According to psychologists, animals are very sensitive to a change in their condition. A pigeon will place more importance on food that's dispensed after tapping a button 20 times because the overall change in the pigeon's conditions, and the energy it expends, is greater than after a button is tapped just once for the same amount of food.

It's probably all to do with anticipation. It's an incentive and reward response. As an example, the researchers cite the pie that tastes so much better if you walk 10 miles to get it than if you had just crossed the street and walked into the nearest bakery for it.

The researchers don't really know why our brain places more importance on something that's been hard-earned than something easily obtained. But they believe it's a basic neural response, so it could either mean pigeons are cleverer than we always thought they were or we humans are more stupid. Only time will tell which is true.

If pigeons form a makeshift army, darkening the sky with their formation flying, dipping occasionally to attack the weak and feeble; if they wrest control of the government, close down the airports, stockpile weapons, hoard food, take hostages and compile a list of outrageous demands; if they mobilize themselves efficiently, defend ruthlessly and die willingly for their cause -- then I guess we'll know.

Beware the pigeons.

 
 
 
 

 

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